Student activists interlock arms as police in riot gear move in to clear a field of grass in front of Sproul Hall on the University of California at Berkeley campus Wednesday, November 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
On Wednesday night, two proud universities saw student demonstrations that spiraled into violence. On the campus of Penn State University in State College Pennsylvania, several hundred students rioted in anger after the firing of legendary 84-year-old head football coach Joe Paterno. At the University of California at Berkeley, 1,000 students, part of the Occupy USA movement, attempted to maintain their protest encampment in the face of police orders to clear them out.
At Penn State, students overturned a media truck, hit an ESPN reporter in the head with a rock and made every effort at arson, attempting to set aflame the very heart of their campus. They raised their fists in defense of a man fired for allegedly covering up the actions of a revered assistant who doubled as a serial child rapist. The almost entirely male student mob was given the space by police to seethe and destroy without restraint.
At Berkeley, the police had a much different response. Defenseless students were struck repeatedly with batons, as efforts were made to disperse their occupation by Sproul Hall, the site of the famed Mario Savio–led free speech battles of the 1960s.
Two coasts and two riots: a frat riot and a cop riot. Each riot, an indelible mark of shame on their respective institutions.
The difference is that at Berkeley, the Occupiers—a diverse assemblage of students, linking arms—pushed back and displayed true courage in the face of state violence. They would not be moved. These students are a credit to their school and represent the absolute best of a young generation who are refusing to accept the world as it is.
At Penn State, we saw the worst of this generation: the flotsam and the fools; the dregs and the Droogs; young men of entitlement who rage for the machine.
No matter how many police officers raised their sticks, the students of Berkeley stood their ground, empowered by a deeper set of commitments to economic and social justice.
No matter how many children come forward to testify how Joe Paterno’s dear friend Jerry Sandusky brutally sodomized them on their very campus, the students at Penn State stood their ground. They stood committed to a man whose statue adorns their campus, whose salary exceeds $1.5 million and whose name for years was whispered to them like he was a benevolent Russian czar and they were the burgeoning Black Hundreds.
Theirs was a tragic statement that proud Penn State has become little more than a company town that’s been in the lucrative business of nursing Joe Paterno’s legend for far too long.
I spoke this morning to a student who was at Sproul Hall and another resident who was a bystander at State College. The word that peppered both of their accounts was “fear:” fear that those with the space and means to be violent—the police at Berkeley and the rioters at Penn State—would take it to, as Anne, a Berkeley student said to me, “a frightening point of no return.”
I would argue that this “point of no return” has now actually been reached, spurred by Wednesday night’s study in contrasts.
November 9 was a generational wake-up call to every student on every campus in this country. Which side are you on? Do you defend the ugliest manifestations of unchecked power or do you fight for a better world with an altogether different set of values? Do you stand with the Thugs of Penn State or do you stand with Occupiers of Berkeley? It’s fear vs. hope, and the stakes are a hell of a lot higher than a BCS bowl.